Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are your pop-culture rules? That is, the up-front guidelines that will prevent you from seeing/reading/listening to something, or that will guarantee that you’ll see/read/listen to it even if reviews or word of mouth or past experience with the creators have been negative?
A little explanation on this one: It comes out of a conversation from a party I attended a few weeks ago, where a friend of mine said she had a new rule regarding movies. If someone “comedically” falls down in the trailer, she will not under any circumstances go see that movie. It turned out that everyone else there had similar rules: One friend will not see a film if “Walking On Sunshine” or “I Feel Good” are used in the trailer. Other people said they would no longer see anything directed by Michael Bay, or anything featuring Woody Allen. Other people revealed positive guidelines: One said that as a rule, she never misses a period piece or costume drama. Another will see anything with Adam Sandler in it.
Personally—like just about everyone on staff here—I don’t always get to pick what I’m going to go see or read or listen to. Somebody has to bite the bullet and go see Tooth Fairy so the rest of our writers and readers don’t have to. But with that caveat, just going on personal preference… I don’t have a whole lot of hard-and-fast rules, but one is the “fat-comedy rule.” If the trailer features someone in a fat suit, or someone playing the “fatty fall down, make funny” role, I’m not interested. (I’ve still never seen a Chris Farley movie.) On the positive side, if it features superheroes, I’m generally there. Someday someone’s going to make a comedy about a fat, clumsy, unkempt superhero, and I’m going to be mildly torn, but I’m betting rule #1 beats out rule #2. Let’s hope I never find out for sure.
Any artists that refer to their own work as “dark” immediately go bye-bye in my book. Give me a break. That’s for everyone else to decide, not the creator. It’s a large part of my nearly lifelong aversion to Trent Reznor in all forms. Then I saw him at the ’09 Sasquatch! Festival and had my lights blown out. (Still don’t regret avoiding his albums, though.) And—something my roommate and I agree on—animal reaction shots are also verboten. Also, for most of the past decade, I have, on general principle, refused to listen to almost every new band with an animal in its name. If you’re a Wolf This or a That Bear or somehow otherwise belong in a menagerie, I steer clear. Maybe it’s because I have never liked Animal Collective, barring the one that samples the Grateful Dead, and tracks that have been remixed by Dam-Funk and Pantha Du Prince. Maybe it’s because so much of the bleh indie I’ve encountered has doubled as a trip to the zoo (or the Natural History Museum). Either way, I prefer the company of humans.
I have a lot of pop-culture guidelines—don’t expect much out of a remake of something less than 10 years old; don’t hang on past the second sequel; don’t trust anything that is specifically marketed to “guys”, and so on—but they’ve all coughed up an exception or two, which means I can’t really call them rules. And, in fact, I tend to bristle at anything that does resemble such a rule, simply because whenever one is invoked, my mind almost immediately starts seeking an exception. So the only thing I could really cite here, and this is more a commentary on my own sense of intellectual inferiority than the quality of the work, is stick to your grade level. Although there have been exceptions here as well—I’ve not encountered many movies, TV shows, or books aimed primarily at children that are worth my time, but there have been enough that I can’t call it an ironclad rule—even when I enjoy it, I feel like I’ve been demoted. Sure, I may have lost my sense of childlike wonder, but since that often translates to “childlike ability to be amazed and astounded by things that are really stupid,” I’m not that sorry to see it go.
My wife lives by something she calls simply “The Robin Williams Rule,” inspired by a traumatic period in which she was compelled to watch Patch Adams twice in as many weeks. In short, if Robin Williams is in it, she’s not watching it. I’ve argued that means she’s missed out on some pretty terrific movies, like The World According To Garp, The Fisher King, and to a lesser extent, Insomnia, World’s Greatest Dad and others. Then I look back at the movies she’s dodged thanks to this simple rule, and I can’t argue with it too vehemently. Me? I live by no rules, baby. I try to leave myself open to surprises.
I pretty much won’t see horror movies just because I’m a pussy. I’d much rather hear about what goes on in them (I spent a nice afternoon recently Googling Human Centipede), so I can satisfy my curiosity without having the mental images seared into my brain for nightmare fodder.
Otherwise, I proposed a list for the Inventory book titled something like “Least Essential Jessicas.” Basically, I have a theory that the most superfluous people in Hollywood tend to be named Jessica or Jennifer—people who maybe can do an okay job in a film, but really aren’t so great that the role couldn’t be filled by anyone else. Of course, these women also tend to be featured most frequently on magazine covers, so due to the promise of so-so acting and general oversaturation factor, odds are if your movie stars someone with the last name Alba, Garner, Simpson, Biel, Aniston, Lopez, or Love Hewitt, odds are I won't be seeing it.
I’m with you on horror movies, Claire. It takes a LOT of convincing to get me to see a horror movie, and anyone who does get me to sit down for one does so with the understanding that I will spend most of the movie whimpering and hiding my face under my shirt. But it isn’t necessarily the gore or the disturbing images that bother me—it’s being startled. If I know a movie’s going to deploy tactics like sudden loud noises and mirror scares—which pretty much all modern horror films do—I officially have zero interest.
Another rule I’ve just recently instated for myself—and this took some soul-searching—I’m done with modern war movies. I realized this after watching The Hurt Locker, which I recognized as an accomplished, potentially captivating film that I felt absolutely no connection to whatsoever. For some reason, the setting and imagery of modern warfare leave me absolutely cold, and prevent me from engaging with a movie the way I like to. (You can extrapolate any bleeding-heart peacenik tendencies you wish from this, but if there is an ethical basis to these feelings, it’s subconscious.) I felt similarly about Jarhead and Generation Kill, which I never managed to like as much as I wanted to. There’s a little more wiggle room when it comes to historical war films and hypothetical future wars—I love a good space battle—but I still tread carefully.
On the opposite end of the spectrum: If a movie/television show includes an uplifting dance or musical sequence, no matter how cheesy—actually, the cheesier the better—I’m there. What can I say, deep down, I’m a big ol’ cornball.
I have a similar rule to Keith’s wife’s, though mine is for model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich. If she’s starring in a movie, there’s a 99 percent chance it’s terrible. (She inspired an idea I had for a companion piece to a list from our Inventory book, “Don’t Just Say Urkel: 25 sure signs that a sitcom is terrible.”) It’s one of my longest running pop-culture guidelines, as I conceived it in 1997 after wasting a buck and two hours of my life seeing The Fifth Element in a dollar theater. As a rule, it’s easy to follow, as Jovovich has pretty much never been in a movie I wanted to see anyway. “But Kyle,” you say, “you’re a huge fan of Dazed And Confused!” Jovovich had, what, three lines in that whole movie? Doesn’t count. Her entire role came down to looking pretty and acting high. (Mission accomplished!) When she steps beyond that and attempts to carry a movie? Yikes.
You say Milla Jovovich, I say Sam Rockwell. (Also A Perfect Getaway, which kicks some serious ass.) Nothing against the guy’s talent, mind you, just his taste, which tends towards the insufferably quirk-ridden and the stylistically inert. After suffering through Choke, Snow Angels, Joshua, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, to name just a few on an ignominious list that goes back to the odious Box Of Moonlight, I decided a couple of Sundances past to cross every movie with the faintest hint of Rockwell off my schedule. A few days later, I started hearing the buzz about Moon, and immediately wondered if my crackpot system had failed me. But sure enough, when I finally got the chance to see the film, it left me colder than the void of space. No system is perfect, especially one that might cause you to miss The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, or even my beloved Charlie’s Angels. So perhaps it’s less an arbitrary pop-culture rule than an arbitrary pop-culture guideline.
I have not, and will not, ever buy a book with an Oprah’s Book Club seal. And I can’t say there’s any rock-solid logic behind this quirk. I don’t mind Oprah per se, and I am appreciative she wields her scepter in an effort to encourage people to read. I think it has something to do with how I view her flock (probably unfairly), but I imagine all of them as dead-eyed adherents refusing to seek out anything on their own. And that bugs me. I have actually read books featured in The Big O’s coffee klatch: As I Lay Dying is in my all-time top five, I loved The Corrections, and Gabriel García Márquez has written some pretty decent stuff. But when I see that stamp of authenticity, it’s like a force field that won’t allow me to even touch a book it shills for. Not coincidentally, this issue has led to some stupid time-wasting on my part—in particular, the day I spent hours traveling Madison from stem to stern looking for an unsullied copy of The Road.
I know this is rapidly becoming a moot point, seeing as how—according to all those technophiles that infest the Internet—print media is going the way of the wax cylinder. (Speaking of which: You should totally check out my wax-cylinder collection sometime. You haven’t heard Zeppelin IV in its true glory until you’ve cranked it on carnauba.) But no matter how often I pick them up and stroke them lovingly in the hidden corners of my local bookstore, I just cannot bring myself to purchase new hardcover books. Partly it’s the price—$25 for a freakin’ book? You’d think trees are scarce or something!—but I also can’t stand the fact that a) dust jackets, as lovely as they can be, always slip off in my hands and get ripped way too easily, and b) hardcovers are needlessly heavy and portability-challenged, especially if I’m already hauling a laptop around in my bag. But that preference for paperbacks means I’m way behind on a shitload of recent books I’m absolutely dying to read, including China Miéville’s The City And The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s hotly tipped debut, The Windup Girl, simply because I don’t like the heft, epidermis, or price tag of hardcovers. Luckily, some publishers—including Orbit, one of my favorite purveyors of fantasy and science fiction—likes to release books directly to trade paperback, my format of choice. Of course, according to the Boing Boing set, we’ll soon be reading novels exclusively via intravenous injection, so what the fuck does it even matter?
My one-line bio in our book, Inventory: 16 Films Featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls, 10 Great Songs Nearly Ruined By Saxophone, And 100 More Obsessively Specific Pop-Culture Lists (still available for purchase! makes a great gift!), covered my semi-arbitrary pop-culture rule, but I’ll restate. I have a serious aversion to movies about dancing and movies about terminal illness. The former stems mostly, I think, from being bored by formula. Every movie about dancing (not all movies featuring dancing, but those specifically about it) features a big dance number at the end, which is supposed to inspire me, even though I generally have no idea why this particular dance is better than any other. (It should be noted that I enjoyed the movie Honey, but only because it’s so genuinely terrible and unintentionally hilarious.) With regards to movies about terminal illness, they’re usually treacly and emotionally dishonest, don’t you find? Magnolia, which I love, offers something of an exception, but the terminal-illness bit is just part of a larger whole. On the positive side of arbitrariness, I will see pretty much any big-budget science-fiction movie, regardless of how crappy it looks.
I don’t have semi-arbitrary pop-culture rules so much as I have preferences. I feel like an arts writer should be open to everything, but given my druthers, I would rather not see a costume drama, especially about a real-life monarch or an uplifting film about mental illness or an independent film with a protagonist who aspires to be a writer. That, to me, represents the epitome of lazy writing. That’s taking the whole “write what you know” thing a little too far. Other films I tend to avoid: dramedies in which white people bond by dancing to Motown songs, G-rated family comedies starring Martin Lawrence, torture porn, or anything involving rape.
If an actor/actress in a new TV show or movie is in some other show that I love, then there’s no chance I will not check it out. That’s how I wound up watching a handful of episodes of that terrible A&E show The Cleaner a few years ago: Boomer from Battlestar Galactica was in it. And X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Thank goodness for Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights. I also saw every episode of Sit Down, Shut Up, no matter how bad it got, because I was pining so hard for the return of Arrested Development, and the majority of its cast voiced the roles. God forbid anyone from The Wire ever does a terrible horror movie about a fetus. (Oh wait, The Unborn: Seen!)
As for what I won’t see, I tend to disregard anything with a trailer that utilizes the record-scratching sound, like “Oh no he di-n’t!” It’s just such a device at this point, it’s going to soil my experience of the movie. I also hate when trailers/posters tell me absolutely nothing about the movie. What was Extraordinary Measures about, other than Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford walking down hallways and possibly writing things on chalkboards? It’s just marketing, but sometimes that’s all films are, and if they can’t do that well, I’m not gonna take part.
I wasn’t going to participate in this one, because I literally couldn’t think of anything: I’m too forgiving and too willing to watch everything at least once. But I realized when reading this news item (about Fox aiming to get Steven Spielberg on board for a TV series about a family that time travels to the prehistoric) that I will see or read literally anything featuring dinosaurs. The Jurassic Park trilogy? Own all three. Fragment, that weird book that came out last year about a secluded island where evolution had continued separate from our track for 500 million years? Read it and mostly enjoyed it, in spite of the intense shame I felt while reading it. And I’ve seen so many crazy stop-motion things purporting to show cavemen fighting dinosaurs that I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of them. It probably stems back to being a 4-year-old and thinking dinosaurs were the coolest thing ever (and having a friend who’s gone on to be a highly respected paleontologist), but something about giant reptiles just works for me. This and my love for time-travel stories, of course, blended into me seeing the absolutely awful A Sound Of Thunder, so this doesn’t always work out, but for the most part, if it’s got dinosaurs, I’m there.